Itzulia: I should be there!

One of my favourite bike stage races takes place in the Spanish Basque Country, usually after Easter, sandwiched between two great Classics’ races, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. I saw the latter live in 2011, but for five years in succession (2012 – 2016), prior to my beloved breaking his leg, we have watched the Basque race live.

His leg is now mended but pressure of work has prevented us from attending the race for the last two years and, of course, this year’s edition has been cancelled because of you know what.

As you all know, I love the race’s location. The Basque Country is famous for its sunny beaches, scintillating modern architecture and for its feisty, cycling-mad natives. It’s also simply beautiful: bright white chalet-style homes with deep-red, blue or green shutters scattered across lush, rolling hills; the Pyrenees Mountains soaring high above the Atlantic; and surfers and sardines sharing the waves. The dazzling architecture of the major towns such as Bilbao and Vitoria-Gasteiz, plus the traditional and thriving small towns, help make the entire region colourful, fun and welcoming.

I’m going to indulge in a spot of virtual travel and bike racing by looking at what might have been in respect of this year’s race which will now be held in 2021. Fingers crossed, I’ll be there!

The details of the six-stage, 898km route of the 60th edition of the race were only revealed in late February. The individual time-trial has been pushed back to the final day of the competition but before, the riders face 18,845 metres of climbing on the preceding five stages. That’s 20 mountain passes: 4 – 1st category; 7 – 2nd category and 9 – 3rd category. Unusually, the race is front-loaded meaning the battle for the spotted mountain jersey would be fought out and decided early on while the 10 sprints to decide the green jersey are pretty evenly distributed.

Monday 6 April, Stage 1: Eibar – Arrate

The opening stage has only six summits (gulp) and will be raced around Eibar, so often the concluding town for this event. It’s a very pleasant place to potter around while the riders are cresting those climbs though much of it has been rebuilt since being destroyed in the Spanish Civil War. It was formerly known for its armaments industry, and many of whose companies, such as BH and Orbea, now manufacture bikes.

For fans of the race, we’re in very familiar territory, particularly the final steep climb leading to the Arrate Sanctuary above Eibar. Both my beloved and I have cycled up here and it’s a tough, tough climb followed by a breakneck finish.

As you can see from the map above, the start is only a few kilometres from the finish line, so the riders are taking the scenic route via a rolling section along the coast towards the Bay of Biscay before they head back to Eibar and that testing finish.

Tuesday 7 April, Stage 2: Amurrio – Ermualde

Both of these towns are (unbelievedly) new to us though I’m pretty sure we’ve probably driven through them at one time or another. Again, the start’s not too far from the finish so the riders will be riding the long way round. This part of the parcours could prove to be quite windy and provide the viewers with some exciting echelon action. The stage tops out with an unprecedented uphill climb (av 11.1%) ending at the Ermualde finish line. The final 3kms are particularly tough. But again, this is just half the story. The first kilometre is at 10.7%, the second at 15.6%, and the rest of the ascent hovers around 7%. That’s gonna hurt!

Wednesday 8 April, Stage 3: Vitoria-Gasteiz – Ibardin

The longest stage in this year’s Itzulia, 200 km through Álava and Navarre. After the last two days of climbing, the kilometres could take their toll on the riders’ legs. And, of course, there’s yet another summit finish. The final ascent is just over six kilometres with an average gradient of 5.8%. This climb last featured in the race in 2012. I can still recall eventual race winner Samuel Sánchez outgunning Joaquim Rodríguez and Chris Horner in a three-up sprint.

Thursday 9 April, Stage 4: Bera – Errenteria

This stage is spectator friendly with a number of loops around the area. The riders head south from Bera and the first loop starts near Elogorriana, taking the riders over the Belate (11km at 5.1%) and Saldias (4.4km at 4.3%). The route returns to Bera after 107km and now heads north. Two more loops follow after Irún, the second of which includes the Erlaitz climb, which also featured in last year’s Clásica de San Sebastián. The riders should fly down the Erlaitz to the finish line in Errentería.

Friday 10 April, Stage 5: Errentería to Sestao

Today’s the “flattest stage” in Itzulia and the sprinters’ last opportunity to shine. The riders battling for GC (General Classification) will appreciate being able to save their energy for tomorrow’s time-trial. Of course, in the Basque Country, there’s never an ideal stage for pure sprinters because it’s always so undulating but for those with stamina….this is where they could prevail. There are only two climbs of any note. The road to Areitio climbs for 2.3km at 5.8%, but the La Reineta climb is more likely to have an impact in terms of the stage victory. This 6.4km ascent at 5.6% is just over 22km from the finish which runs slightly uphill.

Saturday 11 April, Stage 6: Bilbao – Bilbao (21km ITT)

As in previous years, the time trial will decide this year’s Itzulia. A 21km ride between the Basilica of Begoña and Etxeberria Park. It’s a fast time trial with two uphill climbs. It’s a false flat downhill for the first couple of kilometres leading to the first climb. It’s short but there’s a double-digit ramp 300 metres before the top. The road then descends for 7km kilometres before heading onto an undulating section before a wall-like intermezzo takes centre stage. The 7km climb (av.12.8%), opens with a 17% ramp for the first kilometre. Then another false flat downhill leads to the last kilometre which starts as a gradual climb before peaking in the last few hundred metres to the line at 11%.

This is the stage which will decide who gets to wear the winner’s big, black floppy “txapela.”

Last year’s edition (summary video above) produced the first Basque winner for a while, let’s hope the tradition continues next year. Meanwhile, I’d better get cracking and book our hotel for next year!